Let’s talk about tax.
Or more particularly let’s talk about Oxfam’s recent press release on inequality and tax.
Now dear readers when I moved to weekly – hah – posting it was because this blog was supposed to be my methadone programme. Getting me off tax and on to other issues. So when I posted last night – after having posted 3 times last week – I gave myself a good talking to. This had to stop. One post a week was quite enough to keep the cravings at bay. To continue in this vein would risk a relapse.
But this morning while I was getting dressed my husband came and turned on the radio. Rachel LeMesurier from Oxfam was talking about inequality and then she talked about tax and then Stephen Joyce came on and then he talked about tax and then he talked about BEPS.
Just one more little post won’t hurt I am sure and I’ll cut down next week honest.
Oxfam has compared the wealth of 2 New Zealand men Graham Hart and Richard Chandler to the bottom 30% of all adult New Zealanders. Now the inclusion of Richard Chandler seems to be a rhetorical device as from what I can tell he hasn’t lived here since 2006. So very unlikely to be resident for tax purposes.
In the interview Rachael Le M also made reference to the tax loopholes that support such wealth. So using what is public information about Graham Hart and what is public about the tax rules I thought I’d make a stab at setting out what these ‘loopholes’ are.
Now first dear readers please put out of your head anything you have heard about BEPS or diverted profit tax or any of the ways that the nasty multinationals don’t ‘pay their fair share of tax.’ None and I repeat none of this is relevant when dealing with our own people. It might be relevant for the countries they deal with but not for New Zealand. I am hoping that officials will also explain this to new MoF Steven Joyce as when he came on to reply to Rachael – he talked all about BEPS. Face palm.
Graham Hart is a serial business owner. Buying them sorting them out and then selling off the bits he doesn’t want all with a view to building up a Packaging empire. A Rank Group Debt google search also indicates that a substantial proportion of all this buying and selling was done through debt. And at times quite low quality debt which would indicate a proportionately higher interest rate. A number of his businesses are offshore.
So then what ‘loopholes’ – or gaps intended by Parliament – could Mr Hart be exploiting?
The first and most obvious one is that there is unlikely to be any tax on any of the gains made each time he sold an asset or business. The timeframes and lack of a particular pattern – as much as Dr Google can tell me – would indicate that the gains would not be taxable.
The second is that income from the active foreign businesses will be tax exempt and any dividends paid back to a New Zealand will also not be taxed. Trust me on this. I’ll take you all through this another day.
The third relates to debt. Even though it assists in the generation of capital gains and/or the exempt foreign income it will be fully deductible. Now because of the exempt foreign income there will potentially be interest restrictions if the debt of the NZ group exceeds 75% of the value of the assets. A restriction true but not an excessive one given exempt income is being earned.
Now also in Oxfam’s press statement is a reference to a third of HWIs not paying the top tax rate. I am guessing some version of one and three plus the ability to use losses from past business failures is the reason.
Unsurprisingly Eric Crampton of the New Zealand Institute is not sympathetic to Oxfam’s views and points to our housing market as the main driver of inequality. So then in terms of tax and housing the other tax ‘loophole’ then would be the exclusion of imputed rents from the tax base.
Now one answer could be Gareth’s proposal. That is if someone could explain to me how to tax ‘productive capital as measured in the capital account of the National Income Accounts’ in a world where tax is based on financial accounts according to NZIFRS.
The second could be a capital gains tax even on realisation and the third some form interest restriction or clawback when a capital gain is realised. Oh and taxing imputed rents.
How politically palatable is this? Not very given National, Labour, Act, New Zealand First and United Future are all opposed to a capital gains tax – at least Labour for their first term.
But then maybe it is stuff for Labour’s working group. Will be interested to see this all play out.
Let’s talk about tax (and imputed rents).
In one part of the now infamous interview between Gareth Morgan and Paul Henry; when Gareth is trying to explain to Paul that Paul owning a big house or a flash car did have value to Paul – Gareth is talking about imputed rents.
Michael Cullen’s tax review in 2001 – the one that had Shirley Jones as a member that wasn’t the mother of David Cassidy – produced an interim issues paper. In that paper from page 37 there is a proposal to tax imputed rents. I will define it in a minute promise – currently just doing the preamble flow. The media and news – coz in those days people didn’t get their news anywhere else – went absolutely nuts. There was a line doing the rounds that the Beehive’s switchboard was jammed following the release of the issues paper – and that was just from the 9th Floor (HC) to the 7th (MC).
I don’t think Helen Clark’s government could distance themselves from it fast enough.
So what is an imputed rent? Told you I would get there in the end. The way I like to think of it is the rent you save to the extent you own your own place. That value is then income to you as is the case with the dividend rules where a shareholder lives rent free in a house owned by the company.
Strictly speaking the ‘correct technical’ analysis has you both paying non- deductible rent and receiving taxable rent. In the same way renters pay non-deductible rent to landlords for whom it is taxable income. In this analysis you are both renter and landlord.
Yep I prefer my way too.
So it is a benefit or a tax break that owner occupiers get that renters don’t get. And it has been there for like EVAH so no one really realises. Except in their heart they do. Imputed rents is the basis of the received wisdom that you should always pay off your mortage ahead of making other (taxable) investments.
Now the thing is that strictly speaking under the ‘correct technical’ analysis if you start taxing the income you need to also allow deductions. But I am not sure if our friend the private and domestic exclusion for deductions would let it thru.
This isn’t a problem for TOP as their tax will be based on productive capital as measured in the capital account of the National Income Accounts. Ok good. There is though the small matter that nothing else in the tax system is actually based on this concept . So maybe – just maybe – there could be some tax design issues.
Now being the solutions focussed individual that I am – I thought I’d put together another way of taxing imputed rents. Yes I know there is more to the TOP tax policy than this – but there are limits to my powers. I also can’t do a blind thing about political acceptability either – so I am sticking with what I know.
How to tax imputed rents in four easy steps.
Step one. Divide the value of your mortgage by the value of your property. Council valuations will be fine.
Step two. Go to the MBIE website and look up your area, number of bedrooms and find the potential rent for your property. There are three bands. Take the median one. Why? Made it up. No one can be trusted not to self assess the lower band and I can’t cope with the arguing.
Step three. Take the rent in step two and multiply by 52 weeks or how ever long you have lived in your property. If no mortgage put this number in your tax return in the rents box. Joint owners – yes you can divide it by number of owners. Put that number on your tax return.
Step four. Those with mortgages who are still playing. Multiply step one’s number by step three’s number. This is the amount you aren’t paying tax on. Deduct it from the full amount in step three and put it on your tax return. Yes joint owners can divide here to.
Of course it still suffers from the problem all made up or presumptive taxes do that there hasn’t been any cash come in to help pay the tax. But I would hope – to paraphrase one of my commentators – it was more intuitive and less weird to the punters than something based on a percentage of value. Even if the outcome is broadly similar.
Now of course the economists may hate it. But as economists don’t have to explain things to clients or taxpayers – give the accountants this one.
I wouldn’t normally create an entire post for a commentator. But hey it is my blog and not everyone is dedicating themselves to overhauling our country in a socially progressive way. Also I did devote an entire post to them so only seems ‘fair’ – as much as I dislike that term – to do the same for the response.
There must be a technologically prettier way to reproduce his comments – but until number one son comes home for Xmas – this is the best I can do.
Let’s talk about tax.
Or more particularly let’s talk about the recently announced tax policy of The Oppportunities Party – TOP. They are proposing to impose a tax on a deemed or imputed return on capital to the extent tax of that level is not paid already. Kinda like a minimum tax. With proceeds going to fund income tax reductions on labour income.
TOP is a party set up by millionaire businessman and commentator Gareth Morgan to change the political discourse in New Zealand. Your correspondent is particularly fascinated as her eighteen year old self voted for a party set up by a millionaire businessman and commentator Bob Jones who set out to change the political discourse in New Zealand. I was righty then and lefty now and both parties were set up to scratch itches on the body politick.
Bob Jones got no seats but he did get 20% of the vote. Today that would be almost the Greens and New Zealand First level of representation.
Now the New Zealand Party never really got into policy much beyond Freedom and Prosperity. TOP however is much geekier and actually plans to release policy ahead of even deciding to register. And their first released policy is one on tax. And and it seeks to tax capital more heavily and lessen the tax on labour. Woohoo. Speak to me baby.
Now New Zealand’s tax system is one designed by economists, drafted by lawyers and administered by accountants – so what could possibly go wrong. Nonetheless all three groups have their own languages and blind spots. It is a marriage that mostly works but only if all three groups keep their eye on the policy development and respect each other’s strengths.
Another perspective is that of the high level ‘strategic’ people versus the detail people. Again each have their strengths but also the ability to talk past and frustrate the snot out of each other. Working at Treasury I was surrounded by the former. To the younger members of this cohort I would always consul them to stay with the process – even when it became boring. As because detail people speak last – they speak best. And what eventuates may not be what the high level strategic people with the higher number of hay points actually had in mind.
In tax a classic example is the Portfolio Investment Entities rules. If you look at the early high level papers it was all about taking away the tax barriers to diversified pooled investment in shares. What we ended up with was the ability to have cash PIEs, land PIEs and single equity investments. Giving us almost a nordic tax system with the taxation of savings. So somewhere the high level strategic people disengaged or conceded to technical design issues that gave some unintended and quite important consequences.
All of this came back to me when I read the TOP tax policy. Clearly designed by economists – and cleverly so – but sadly lacking in input of the other two tax disciplines. So as a tax accountant who is regularly mistaken for a lawyer I thought I’d step up and help them out. Here goes:
General aka random irrelevant points that say more about the reviewer than the reviewee.
One. While Gareth didn’t – I enjoyed the envy tax reference. Coz does this mean taxing labour is a pity tax, or a tax on despair or a tax on barely getting ahead? I am all in favour of taxing envy. Let’s also tax greed, sloth, lust and the rest of the hell pizzas. There’s no risk of that tax distorting those human behaviours after all.
Two. For readers who have been keeping up, a regular whinge of mine is how we effectively give deductions for loss of capital when gains are not taxed. This would be overcome through the minimum tax on wealth (or assets). So under this proposal such capital losses would effectively become valueless. Rejoice.
Three. If you are going to get a bunch of extra money – instead of reducing taxes on labour income – the tax welfare interface is IMHO a much more worthy candidate for any spare money. But maybe the universal basic income is the next cab off the rank.
Specific points that might actually be helpful
One. It is true property ownership is a feature of the rich list but so is serial entrepeneurship – Graeme Hart, Diane Foreman and someone Morgan. Now a key part of entrepeneurship is loss making in the early years. There is some attempt to address this with a potental deferral of up to three years of the tax. The question I have is this long enough? Isn’t Xero still loss making?
Now the received wisdom is that innovation is a good thing hence all the fricken R&D subsidies. With a much less benign tax system for innovation – will this mean that some of the dosh is simply recycled back to small firms via Callaghan? And so maybe not all will go to reduce taxes on labour income?
Two. Is it a tax based on wealth or assets? Both are mentioned in the proposal but they aren’t the same. Capital is used a lot in the proposal and depending on whether you are talking to an accountant or an economist can mean either assets or wealth. But here is why it matters. Assets is the total of all the stuff you have legal title to, wealth is the amount that no one else has claims on. And the difference between the two is usually debt but could also be trade creditors, intercompany advances or provisons or accruals. Not all of these generate tax deductions.
So if it is a tax on assets, is it fair to tax people on stuff that other have claims on? I doubt it. A bit of language tightening here would be cool.
Three. Valuation. For property and things like shares market valuations are not too hard. Businesses – however – wow. There will be what the financial accounts say but then there will be what someone is prepared to pay. Usually some multiple of Earnings Before Interest and Tax – EBIT. And what about valuing implicit parental guarantees from non- residents. The choice then is to be completely fair between all forms of wealth and be a bit arbitrary and compliance cost heavy or not but not tax all forms of wealth evenly. Up to you.
Four. Who owns the wealth? From the vibe of the proposal I would say the intention is that the ultimate owner of the wealth pays the tax. However structurally wealth is likely to be held through many trusts, holding companies , limited partnerships and possibly in individuals own names. This is not insurmountable for design but will involve complicated grouping rules and possibly flows of notional credits to make it work. Perhaps have a look at the actual tax rules for imputation, mixed use assets or cashing out R&D losses to see if you still have the intestinal fortitude for what it will mean to make this work.
Five. Compliance costs. Now I don’t want to overplay this but comforting assurances that if you’re paying enough tax you’ll be fine means – two sets of calculations. The old rules will need to be applied which are not compliance lite and then the new rules willl need to be applied. And after addressing the issues above – they won’t be any picnic either.
But good luck. Perhaps in practice a tax solely on property might work. But after working through their policy I can’t help feeling all this is why countries just cut their losses with a realised capital gains tax.
And thanks for playing. First policy – one on tax – still impressed.